A RECON WITH BILL
By Gordon Barnes
Editors Note: Click on RED text for pictures
Author’s Note: I had intended to write this article back in 1998 when I learned that Bill Sapp was to be the first "Oldest Photomapper" in the World’s Oldest Photomapper Club which had just been approved by the membership of the Air Force Photomapping Association. I find the extremely high priority mission the article discusses an interesting one, and I wanted Bill to know the very positive influence he had on me as a new Photomapper. Attitudes I learned from him on this comparatively short mission have helped me to this day. Bill died on 12 Oct. 2007. I’m sorry I didn’t write this sooner, but I just didn’t take the time. Learning of his death rekindled my desire to document this recon. I now consider it to be a tribute to a very talented and interesting guy, and to his life as a Photomapper.
In 1966 I had just graduated from the AFIT (Air Force Institute of Technology) Program at The Ohio State University with a Masters Degree in Geodetic Science, and I had been assigned to the 1370th Photomapping Wing at Turner AFB, GA. My military background at that time was eight years as an aircrew Navigator in SAC (Strategic Air Command) where EVERYTHING was highly regimented and documented, and where, especially as a Navigator, original thinking was not encouraged. In fact, it was discouraged. My two attempts to study a problem and initiate corrections had resulted in a written reprimand in one case and an IG (Inspector General) finding in the other; even though it was unanimously agreed that the corrections had streamlined procedures and saved thousands of dollars in aircraft repair costs. The PROBLEM was the corrections had not been properly documented and approved by SAC.
So, I reported to Turner knowing the technical aspects of Cartography and Geodesy but absolutely nothing about their practical applications as performed by the Photomappers of the 1370th. And, though I felt I had at least as much initiative as the average junior Major, because of my background in SAC, I was probably overly tentative in wanting to exhibit it.
Upon reporting I learned I was to be assigned as Chief of the Plans & Reconnaissance Section in the 1373rd Mapping and Charting Squadron. As in SAC, I expected to be told exactly what to do and, hopefully, to be handed a checklist to assure I could do it correctly. Boy, was that a poor assumption! The Wing and Squadron Commanders welcomed me aboard and quickly turned me over to my boss who was a senior Major and the Chief of the Squadron’s Data Reduction Branch. My 20 minute orientation from him consisted of his explaining that though my office had the responsibility for turning out a large volume of operational plans and project reports, it was dependent on his secretary for typing support. Also, though the technical project plans for the Wing were my responsibility, the two GS-14 civilian employees who primarily performed these planning functions were on paper assigned to his level in order to better justify their high grades. And that other than the Wing’s manning document, there were no written materials that defined exactly what it was my office did or how they did it. He suggested I go to my office and introduce myself to the people assigned to me and have them explain what they do. What I found out was that most of my people were off on TDY most of the time. When they were home they were busy writing trip reports and/or ops plans, and when they weren’t doing either of those things they took compensatory time off. I did get a good rundown from the two civilians on the technical side of the business, so got fairly comfortable with that part of the Wing’s overall mission.
Unfortunately, at the same time I was trying to get oriented, I was feeling the pressure of getting the results of the research I had done for my Masters thesis put into a format suitable for an oral presentation. I had been invited by the AGU (American Geophysical Union) to present it at their annual meeting in Washington DC a couple months later, and this involved preparing audio visual aids and submitting drafts, etc. on a strict timetable. Also, I was being nagged by the flying squadrons to get checked out in their aircraft so that I could assume a small portion of their workload and continue to qualify for flight pay. In short, though I seemed to be continually busy and I did get to visit a couple foreign ASTs (Aerial Survey Teams) in my flying capacity, in the first few months I never did get to go on an actual reconnaissance to see what my people really did. So, here I was entering a new career field at the field grade level and after months still didn’t know nearly enough about what it took to perform our Section’s functions in the best manner possible.
On the morning of 13 March 1967 my boss came into my office and told me to hurry over to Wing Headquarters and join a group headed by the Wing Commander who was going to decide if we should accept a new, high priority project in support of the Navy’s FBM (Fleet Ballistic Missile) Program. What they had was a classified message query from AF Ops asking the feasibility of supporting a mission to track a Navy research ship—the USS Compass Island—as it sailed from the north into the Port of San Juan, Puerto Rico nine days from the date of the message. Also, four days after that, to track the ship outbound along the same track. Our job would be to do this tracking using HIRAN Controlled Photography (HCP) and a technique similar to that of SCP (Secondary Control Point) positioning, but instead of positioning a fixed point of interest we would be positioning a moving ship. The requirement was to position a particular point on the ship to an accuracy of plus or minus 200 feet on the NAD 27 Datum (North American Datum of 1927) at the Standard Deviation confidence level. The Navy’s reason for wanting this done was this. They were developing a new SINS (Ship’s Inertial Navigation System) to go into their FBM fleet. Since at times in their patrols the nuclear SLBMs (Sea-Launched Ballistic Missiles) would get their launch positions from the SINS, it was important to determine what effect gravity anomalies would have the accuracy of SINS positioning. From that determination they could then establish if the resultant errors would allow the missiles to kill all potential targets without gravity compensation. To determine this empirically, the Navy chose to install the SINS on this surface, research ship and sail it across the Puerto Rican Trench—which is the area with the second greatest gravity anomalies in the Earth’s seas. What they needed was an accurate, independent positioning standard against which to rate the SINS, and HIRAN was the only system capable of providing the necessary accuracy at long distances from any landmass. Since the mission was in support of the FBM Program it carried a DOD FAD I (Force/Activity Designator I) Priority and Air Force Support carried an Air Force Precedence Rating of 1-1. Both are the very highest priorities in their respective systems.
I asked my boss if the Squadron had a position on whether or not we should accept the mission. He said no, that I should just let the others make the decision and report back to him and the Squadron Commander on what was decided. When I got to the Wing Conference Room the table seats were already full of O-6s and O-5s, so I took a seat along a wall with several others. I had met very few of those in the room but knew some by the positions they held in the Wing. One of the first things the Commander asked was for the 1373rd rep to address if we were able to achieve the accuracy requirement. I hadn’t seen the message so hadn’t anticipated this question, but I did know typical HCP and SCP accuracies, so I assured him we could meet the accuracy requirement. For the next hour or so everyone voiced his opinion on whether, given the short time fuse, we could get all required resources in place to accomplish the mission. It seemed people were about evenly divided, and each time someone spoke the Wing Commander would switch his position to that of the speaker. He was clearly conflicted and was looking for more unanimity but wasn’t getting it. I was flabbergasted that this was the way decisions were made but knowing almost nothing about what all was involved logistically, I wasn’t about to open my mouth. Finally everyone fell quiet and it was up to the Commander to make his decision. At that moment I heard a quiet voice from the end of the wall row to my left say, "Sir, just send Major Barnes and me down to the mission area and we’ll tell you in a couple days if it is possible."
I leaned forward to see who was doing the talking and noted it was a CWO4. I didn’t know him and I doubted he knew who I was; so I leaned over to the guy seated next to me (who I didn’t know) and asked who the Warrant Officer was and if there were another Maj. Barnes in the Wing. He replied, "The guy is Bill Sapp and he is in charge of the Ground Station Guys. And no, there are no other Maj. Barneses. I think he is talking about you!" I didn’t know whether to be flattered or pissed!
The Commander was just waiting for such a positive suggestion. He immediately told everyone to assume the mission was a go and to get prepared. He told the Commander of the RC-130 Squadron to schedule a training flight to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico for first light the next morning to position Barnes and Sapp in the mission area. And he told Bill and me to conduct the necessary recon and advise him ASAP of the feasibility of successfully accomplishing the mission. And, if it appeared feasible, to make the necessary support arrangements for our aircraft and ground stations.
As the meeting broke up I introduced myself to Bill and only half facetiously noted that I thought usually higher ranking people volunteered lower ranking people for TDY (Temporary Duty) and not the other way around. He smiled and said, "This should be a very interesting recon, and as the new head of your section I was sure you would want to go." Next I asked him why he spoke up when he did and not sooner. He replied, "At the end I feared he might decline the mission without giving it a shot, and I felt that would have been a mistake." Good answers I thought! I next pointed out that I had never been on a recon and that I would be depending on him to tell me what we should be doing and when we should be doing it. He said the first thing we had to do was go to Finance and pick up some money. Before going there I asked him to hang with me while I made some phone calls. I called my boss and gave him a rundown on what the decision was and where we stood. I then asked him to get some orders cut for Bill and me sending us to Puerto Rico and wherever else our two planning civilians decided we needed HIRAN ground stations. I next called the planners and outlined the mission. I asked them to select the right number and locations for the ground stations and have some maps and a briefing ready for me by quitting time; and to advise my boss of what locations we needed to go to for inclusion on our TDY orders. Lastly I called the Chief of Staff at SAC Headquarters and ask that a point of contact be established at their organization for our mission, which I briefly outlined to him. I was careful to note the priority of our mission and I told him I would, by message, be requesting support from their 72nd Bomb Wing and their 72nd Combat Support Group at Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico. Although up until now in this article I have tended to be critical of SAC, I was happy that I was now dealing with them. When they accept something to do they do it right and they completely know and understand the DOD and Air Force priority systems. It is very difficult for them to understand how ANYONE could have a higher priority than their operational units; but when they find one that does, they are happy to be a part of the action. The Chief of Staff promised to have their contact call me back once selected. Then off Bill and I went to Finance.
There I was in for my next shock. The Finance lady greeted Bill like a son and asked him where he was going this time and how much money he would need. He told her where and when and then said something like, "Make it $10,000." She next counted out ten thousand in cash and gave it to him! Now remember these were 1967 dollars and to me that was a LOT of money! He signed a form acknowledging receipt and we walked out. He then explained that he was an Air Force Purchasing Agent and these were the funds that would allow us to purchase the goods and services we would need to perform our mission and keep it on the tight schedule we were facing. We next went our separate ways to prepare for our early morning departure the following day.
When I got back to my Squadron, I already had a call waiting for me from our point of contact at SAC. He was the Chief of the Communications & Electronics Division; and he advised me he had already directed the people at Ramey to support us in every way possible. He had also told them to expect a message from us outlining as best we could what the mission was, its priority, and our anticipated needs. I assured him I would get one off ASAP, and I did. I then got a briefing from the two GS-14s on the plan they had come up with. They had selected a survey station on the island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to the east of Puerto Rico for one ground station and one on the island of Isla Mona to the west of Puerto Rico for the second ground station. Using these two stations and HCP with a modified version of SCP Positioning, we would be able to meet the accuracy requirements of the Navy. Both of the survey stations selected had been positioned on the NAD-27 Datum by the HIRAN trilateration net connecting Florida to Trinidad in the 1940s and refined in the 1950s.
Daylight on 14 March 1967 found us aboard a Wing RC-130 enroute to Ramey. I spent the whole flight picking Bill’s brain regarding just what all we had to do and in what order we should do it. He explained that my only real job was to select the ground station sites, assure they were usable for the operation, and that their use would result in the required accuracy. In addition to that it would be helpful if I would be the initial speaker when meeting people from whom we were requesting support and if I would at that time give them a little rundown on the purpose of the mission, what our people would be doing and what successful accomplishment would mean. He would then take over and discuss our particular needs. That sounded like a good plan to me and proved very successful. We also agreed to tackle the St. Thomas area first as that appeared to both of us as the easier.
Upon landing at Ramey we were greeted by a whole host of O-6s and O-5s representing both the Ops and Logistics functions of the Bomb Wing and the Combat Support Group. All seemed truly eager to find out just what we were doing and what we were wanting from them. Bill knew the Colonel in charge of Logistics from some other mission he had coordinated and that got things off on the right foot. I gave all a good and complete rundown on the whole mission and stressed that we had to have everything in place and ready to go in less than eight days and that we were starting from ground zero. The only thing I couldn’t explain was why the Navy had given us such little notice. I could only speculate that it had taken their requirement a lot longer to wind its way thru the Navy, the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), Air Force Intelligence, and then down to us thru Air Force Ops and MAC than they had anticipated. I told the Ops guys present that we would like to get to St. Thomas yet that day and asked if they knew of any way we could get there quickly or should we have our RC-130 standby and take us? The Ops Chief said they planned to place their U-3 Blue Canoesupport aircraft and a pilot at our disposal so I released our plane to go home.
After my blurb, Bill and the logistics guys went to their area of the base while I stayed with the ops guys. I told them we had noticed that Mona had a Coast Guard lighthouse shown on the map and we had planned to contact the Coast Guard facility in San Juan to see if they could get us over to that island. I asked if they had any other suggestions. They didn’t so I called the Coast Guard Commander in San Juan. He gave me a good rundown on what it would take to get to Mona. He said it would require us to traverse the Mona Passage which is some of the roughest water in the World. Because of that he said we should not attempt it in a boat smaller than 40 feet; however, we shouldn’t try it in one much bigger because that size boat might have trouble getting over the reef surrounding the island. He could not offer a boat because all of theirs were required to patrol the Puerto Rican coast. Normally, he said he could offer a helicopter as that is how they support their lighthouse, however one of their two was in major overhaul and wouldn’t be out for over two weeks and they couldn’t release the other as it was required to be on rescue standby at all times. I asked if he had any suggestions regarding where we might get the proper type of boat to support us. He suggested the Island Police. He said they had the perfect power launch to make the trip. We closed our conversation with him offering their lighthouse as a place to stay for our ground station guys if we wanted it. He said it was permanently manned by three of their people but there was room for several more. I thanked him and told him I would contact him later concerning his offer. I decided not to contact the Police at that time as I was antsy to get to St. Thomas. I asked the ops reps if they knew of a good, not too expensive place on St. Thomas for us to stay while we reconned that island. One recommended the Gramboko Hotel. It was near the Airport and well west of the costly tourist resorts near the island capital of Charlotte Amalie. It seems St. Thomas used to be a regular port-of-call for the U.S. Navy for many years. Then several years ago things started getting rowdy and a local girl was murdered by a U.S. sailor. The local government expelled the Navy from their island and the Navy subsequently sold their holdings there. The Gramboko was the former Officers’ Quarters and Club for the submarine base located at that location on the island.
After getting all my questions answered I went over to the logistics area to see how Bill was doing. He had the whole logistics function eating out of his hand. He’d gotten all the support he felt he needed and that included office space for the AST, both officer and enlisted quarters for our troops, a car with driver for us while on Puerto Rico, warehouse space for the AST’s equipment, ramp space for up to three aircraft, fuel for the ground stations as required and on and on. By then Bill was regaling all with war stories! I hated to break-up a good thing but figured we’d better get to St. Thomas before dark so we could get settled in.
By the time we got back to Base Ops the U-3 was cranked-up and ready to fly us to the Harry S. Truman Airport on St. Thomas. We were dropped there and the U-3 headed back to Ramey. We rented a little VW Beatle at the airport and went in search of the Gramboko Hotel. It was clean and quiet but all the available rooms required sharing a bath down the hall. It had been a long day and we could think of nothing else productive we could do this late so we called it a day. I called back to my boss at his home and told him all support had been great and the Puerto Rican part of the mission was a definite go. And, that we would tackle the St. Thomas part of the problem the next day. It was then I learned how Bill liked to end each working day. We would find the nearest source of beer and buy a six pack. In the time it took me to drink one he would have downed the remaining five. If I were thirsty we would repeat the process. The guy was a true champion beer drinker! And no matter how much he drank you could never detect the slightest change in him or his ability to function in an entirely normal manner. I truly believe he could consume beer at this amazing rate indefinitely with no outward effects.
We were at work early the next morning with only seven days to go until we had to have a plane airborne and on station over the ship. We first headed out to find the survey station chosen by the planners back at Turner. It was located on the highest peak on St. Thomas and therefore its occupation would provide maximum ranging to the aircraft. When we got to the peak we found it occupied by a huge TV transmission tower imbedded in concrete directly over the survey mark. Therefore erecting a ground station over the mark would be impossible; as would doing a simple offset survey because there was no way to occupy the station with a survey instrument, and we could find no reference or azimuth marks monumented in the area. If we established a ground station in the vicinity it would require a significant after-the-fact survey effort. Even more germane was the question of whether or not the landowners would let us occupy a spot near the TV tower. I contacted the TV station manager and briefed him on what we needed to do. He was completely NOT interested in helping us in any way. He was afraid of mutual electronic interference and said it was impossible to take the TV channel off the air at all; much less for over 30 hours which is what we estimated we would be tracking the ship over parts of six days. He said that there were lots of high points on St. Thomas and we should go elsewhere. After his rant I concurred. We headed back into Charlotte Amalie and found the government office in charge of surveys on the island. They were very helpful and provided us with triangulation station diagrams for the whole island as well as more detailed maps than we had brought with us. We next headed to the second highest peak on the island as it also showed a survey station near its summit. When we got there we found it occupied by a FAA (Federal Aeronautics Administration) TVOR (Terminal VHF Omnidirectional Range) station which served as a navigation aid to aircraft approaching and departing Truman airport. Here the station antenna was not directly over the survey mark and the mark could be occupied. I talked to the FAA supervisor on site about closely co-locating our station to his. He wasn’t fond of the idea because of possible electronic interference but conceded that if it came down to priorities, his station may well be the one that had to be shut down. He said that he could not give us permission to occupy their property but that would have to come from their headquarters in Washington DC. I asked him to contact them and alert them to the possibility that we would formally ask their permission shortly. I also provided the phone number of our action officer on the Air Staff in Washington in case they wanted to look into the requirement.
Bill and I then headed to the third highest point which was a short way to the west and again showed a survey triangulation station on its peak. This one appeared more promising as our maps showed no road leading to its summit so we assumed and hoped it would be unoccupied. When we got near, however, we did find a dirt road running off the main road and heading toward the peak. We were initially disheartened, but after driving up it a short way it quickly became progressively more narrow and rutted. Finally it became almost impassable in our little VW. After about a half mile we found the road dead ended into a fairly new eight foot high chain-link fence with a gate and immediately behind it a very nice solid fence of vertical wooden slats perhaps 10 feet in height, allowing no way to see what was behind it. To the left both fences ran maybe 80 feet to the edge of a cliff that dropped off steeply to the ocean far below. To the right they ran perhaps 120 feet then turned 90 degrees toward the same cliff edge. We shook the metal gate and hollered to see if anyone was behind the fence that might hear us. We got no response. I then decided to walk to the cliff edge to our left and try to grab the terminal fence post for the chain-link and gingerly swing around the end without falling down the cliff. When I did this I saw a beautiful, circular home in the distance that had a nice, large swimming pool located adjacent to the house between it and the fence. Bill joined me and we again hollered asking if anyone were home. Again, no response. As we neared the pool area I saw what appeared to be a woman swimming in it and we also saw a jeep parked behind the house. I stopped and yelled still again and identified ourselves as being members of the Air Force who were interested in establishing a temporary electronic ground station in the area. This time the swimming lady heard us and asked us to avert our eyes until she could get out of the pool and into a robe. Only then did it become apparent that she was not wearing a swimming suit. She didn’t seem at all nervous, angry, or frightened but rather truly interested in what we were doing invading her space without her permission. Once she was covered I proceeded to explain to her what we were trying to do, the lack of success we had had so far that day, and how time constrained we were. And I asked her if she were aware of a survey marker anywhere on her property. She said she was sure there was nothing on her property but perhaps on the undeveloped property to the east which shared the peak. She opened her gate for me and I went searching for the mark while Bill stayed behind and visited with the nice lady. After about a 20 minute search I found the mark imbedded in a large boulder in a sizeable field of dry, two foot tall native grasses. I returned to her house to find her and Bill relaxed, laughing and sharing a drink—he a beer and she a glass of wine. I accepted her offer of a beer and drank it while explaining I had found the mark and it appeared to be a perfect location for our ground station. I asked if she minded our putting it over the mark. She answered that she didn’t own that property so couldn’t possibly authorize its use. She said all she knew about the owner was his name, that he was a Vice President of Alcoa Aluminum and that he lived in Pittsburgh, PA. He came down about once a year to camp out on the property with his two young grandsons in a tent that he stored in a shed located at the rear of his property. I told her we would try to track him down and ask permission to occupy the survey marker area for a few days. Bill and I then returned to Charlotte Amalie once again; this time to visit the Registrar of Deeds to see if we could get a phone number for the owner. We got his number in Pittsburgh and I tried to call him. His heavily accented housekeeper answered, and she advised me that he and his wife were on a European holiday and wouldn’t be back in the States for another three weeks. I asked if she had a way to get in touch with him and she said no. I told her I wanted to ask a favor of him, but I would do this by mail and hung up. At that time I decided we would use his property for the ground station if at all possible and I would just write and tell him what we had done and why. As a Vice President of a major U. S. company, I reasoned he was certainly an intelligent, reasonable and patriotic man and therefore would not object. Later that night I did write the owner a letter and posted it immediately. I told him how to get in touch with me if he wanted. He never did so I assume he agreed with what we did.
We drove back to the lady’s house on the mountain top and explained where we stood. I told her that unless she was strenuously opposed, we intended to use her neighbor’s land for our ground station as it was our last resort as a location that would give us the signal distance we needed and we were running out of time. She repeated that her neighbor was a nice guy and she was sure he wouldn’t mind. She said she would concur with our decision and tell him so if we would do two things. First, have our guys notify her in advance any time they were going to operate at night so she could move into "her" hotel over those periods. She was afraid the noise of the generator, etc. would prevent her sleeping well. Second, she wanted us to guarantee her we would clear the area of our operations of the tall, dry grasses presently growing there. She was very afraid of the possibility of fire given our use of a generator and the related storage of extra gasoline at the site. The survey mark was only about 30 feet from her wooden fence and she was rightly worried that if the grass were to catch fire her fence and the neighbor’s storage shed would surely be destroyed and possibly her beautiful and expensive home, given its remote location from any fire fighting resources. We readily agreed to those two conditions; and then I asked her what she meant by "her" hotel. This opened a very fruitful discussion. It seems she was a widow and apparently very well off. She owned the Gramboko Hotel where we were staying as well as several other properties on the island. She also owned her own plane with a pilot on call which she used to travel among the islands and to the U.S. mainland. She said she left the road to her property rutted and in disrepair intentionally to discourage the curious from driving up it. She proved to be a most excellent host to us and our troops for the short time we were on the island.
To me we had completed what we had to do on St. Thomas and I was anxious to get to Isla Mona so we could complete our recon. Then Bill caught me by complete surprise when he suggested I call the Wing Commander and tell him the project was going to work and that he should deploy one aircraft and crew, the AST Commander, and all the ground station men and equipment ASAP. In my linear way of thinking we had to complete the recon before we should commit to deploying resources to the area. Bill, on the other hand, thought that may not be possible. And, using his gambler’s instinct, felt we should bet on the come and recon and install the Mona ground station at the same time. This would give the maximum number of people the maximum time on site to get ready. After all, we only had six days to go at this point. Of course he was right. I called the Wing Commander and he agreed to deploy the resources we recommended the following day. So, we extended our stay on St. Thomas another night in order to be able to meet the plane and help with the ground station installation the following day. Bill then begged the use of a large dump truck and driver from the Island Government for use in transporting the ground station gear to the site, we reserved rooms at the Gramboko Hotel for the ground station operators for the period they would be on the island, and we rented another car for their use. Bill also arranged for the men to be able to use the dining hall across the street from the hotel. It was run by the Longshoremen’s Union for their members who worked on the docks of the port facility. This was a major benefit as the cost of food on St. Thomas was in general very expensive, while at this private dining facility good food was available at very reasonable prices. With that we ended our work day and headed to the nearest store for our ritual six-pack (or two!).
Up to that point we hadn’t worn our uniforms since we arrived on St. Thomas; but, because I thought it might help us gain easier access to our RC-130 on the parking ramp at Harry S. Truman AP when we arrived with our dump truck, on 16 March I did wear mine. While it has nothing to do with our recon, doing so led to an interesting encounter. As we were preparing to leave for the airport I was standing in the lobby of the hotel and visiting with the manager. At that time I was approached by an extremely young looking Navy Ensign in his dress uniform. If you will recall, earlier in this article I had mentioned that the Navy had been expelled from the Island for several years. Less than a year before, however, the ban had been lifted and while they had not reestablished a base there, they were once again allowed to use it as a port-of-call. Anyway, the Ensign asked, "Are you the SOPA?"
My reply was, "If you’ll tell me what a SOPA is, I’ll tell you if I are one! Also, tell me why you are asking."
He explained, "SOPA means Senior Officer Present Ashore. Whenever one or more ships or boats pull into a port the junior officer has to go ashore, find the SOPA and request permission for the personnel of the ships to come ashore. We have two nuclear subs that have just tied-up at the docks across the street and we’d like to come ashore."
I said, "I doubt I am the SOPA because there is a large Navy ship, probably a destroyer, anchored in St. Thomas Harbor just off Charlotte Amalie; but if you want to assume I am the SOPA, I won’t argue and you have my permission to come ashore." I had no idea of the significance of what I had just done but I thought it extremely funny. He thanked me and left. I didn’t know if he were going back to his boats or if he would continue his search for the SOPA. About 10 minutes later I got my answer. As we pulled away from the Hotel on our way to the airport, that part of the island was already swarming with sailors headed off in all directions.
We got to the airport just in time to see our RC-130 land. The Aircraft Commander’s plan was to offload the ground station guys and their equipment and then head to Ramey to start establishing the AST there. I offered those on board an alternative. I told them if they stayed on St. Thomas and helped us clear the ground station site and then set up the station, they would surely run out of crew day before they could legally get to Ramey. That would mean they would have to spend the night on St. Thomas and that would just have to be more fun than staying in military quarters on Ramey. Also, if they did this they could give Bill and me a ride back to Ramey in the morning and that would be a big help to us. They jumped at the chance to stay. We all piled into the truck and cars and headed to the site. On the way we stopped to buy some weed cutters and sickles, to fill the gasoline drums with fuel, and to fill some water barrels with water. With all the people working we were able to get the site cleared and the station nearly established in just a few hours. When we got back to the hotel the bar was overflowing with sailors drinking beer and having a great time. I went to my room to take a nap while Bill and several of the aircrew chose to stay and drink with the sailors.
I should mention here that water is certainly one of the most valuable commodities on St. Thomas. It has an extremely dry climate and fresh water is scarce. In fact they have even paved the back sides of some of their mountains and channeled the water falling on those areas into large cisterns to be used as part of their fresh water supply. To help cut down on consumption, their law states that all water to commercial establishments must be cut off at 11:00 PM. This in turn means that all bars and restaurants must close at that hour. The bartender at the Gramboko had offered to give us a tour of some of the illegal after-hours drinking establishments that night after getting off at 11:00. Some of the aircrew and I went downstairs at 11:00 to meet her. What a sight!! Even more sailors were there than before and the place was rocking! And Bill was still there with them. They had bought enough beer to cover every horizontal surface in the bar area so it appeared they were good for several more hours. Our group went to a half dozen interesting places and then headed back to the hotel at about 3:00 AM. The party was still going strong and so was Bill. It looked like they had even more unopened beer than they had four hours previously, but I didn’t see how that was possible in a closed bar. I said goodnight to Bill and went to bed.
In the morning I reflected back on the day before. I knew that our nuclear subs sometimes stayed at sea for up to six months at a time. I assumed these two subs must have done that given the seriousness of their partying. I also wondered where all that beer came from in a closed bar. Fortunately, the owner of the hotel had come down that morning to see us off. Like I said, she was a nice lady. I asked her these questions. She said, "No, they haven’t been at sea for six months but ONE WEEK! If they don’t screw up for a week the sub’s Captains allow them to come into port every week. As for the beer, we lock our beer locker at 11:00 as is required by law. We do that with a cheap $2.00 hasp. When they run out of beer they break open the hasp and help themselves. I charge them for the beer they drink, plus $5.00 more for the hasp than they had paid for it the week before. This week it cost them $240 which they pay with no complaints. I don’t press charges and everybody is happy!"
We took off at about 10:00 AM as I recall and headed for Ramey. It was now 17 March and we had five days to go. Bill took charge of off-loading the plane, the AST Commander started establishing the AST, and I started looking for a way for us to get to Mona. I called the head of the Island Police as had been recommended by the Coast Guard. He said they would love to help but had only the one boat that could get to Mona and over the reef safely and that had to stay on patrol in Puerto Rico. The Chief did, however, suggest we hire a boat from one of the several fishing fleets that operated from the city of Cabo Rojo at the very southwestern corner of Puerto Rico. He was certain we could find a proper boat there. He also offered to have his Chief for that area meet us there early the next morning, introduce us to the owners of the fleets, and facilitate the charter in any way he could. I told him we had hoped to get going yet today if at all possible. He said his Chief could not work on it that day but might have time to talk to some of the owners so they could consider it and be ready for us in the morning. I gave him the requirements as I knew them; i.e., that the boat be at least 40 feet and be able to get over the reef at Mona. Also I gave him the number of cubic feet of below deck waterproof storage we would need for electronic gear. I thanked him and said I would meet their man at 8:00 the next morning in Cabo Rojo.
The day wasn’t wasted as I helped Bill line up a car and driver/translator from the 72nd Combat Support Group for the next day. We also got a couple of their trucks loaded with all the ground station gear and ready to go should we find a good boat. The Coast Guard had told us that there was no fresh water supply on Mona so we would have to bring enough to support our operation while there. And of course there were no gasoline supplies so we would also have to bring what we would need. I called the Coast Guard Commander in San Juan and told him we anticipated being at Mona sometime the next day or early the following day and asked that he alert his lighthouse operators that we were coming. Also, that we would take him up on his offer to let our three operators stay in the lighthouse while there.
Bill and I with our driver/translator met the Police Chief in Cabo Rojo the next morning as arranged. He told us he had talked with a few of the fleet owners and that he would take us to the one he thought most promising. It was 18 March and everything had to be up and running in four days so I HOPED he was promising! We met with the gentleman and he spoke almost no English. Through our translator we told him our specs as to length, draft, total cubic feet of equipment, total cubic feet of waterproof hold space, and total number of people. He assured us he had the perfect boat. We then asked for a price to take us to Mona and bring us back; and then to return to Mona at the end of the mission, pick up the ground station people and their equipment and return them to Cabo Rojo. He asked for $400. That sounded just fine to me but before I could tell him so, Bill asked our interpreter to tell him we were on a scientific mission and that if everything turned out well there would be many more such trips in the future. I had no idea where that came from but the owner immediately lowered his asking price to $200. We agreed and Bill paid him in cash. I then asked to see the boat. He said that wasn’t possible as it was out fishing but would be back by noon. Well, that didn’t make me too happy as we had just bought a pig in a poke; but remembering Bill’s guidance to always remain positive and be willing to bet on the come I didn’t voice my displeasure. We immediately headed back to Ramey to get the ground station guys and their equipment. On the way back our driver/interpreter begged us to take him with us to Mona. He said he was a professional diver and avid snorkeler. He made extra money by diving for large shells and selling them. For example he could get $5 for a conch shell uncleaned and $15 for a large one cleaned and he could get more than that for some other kinds he knew to be around Mona. He told us the south shore of Mona had some of the best shelling in the world and almost no one ever went there. He had done a great job for us so far and I had been warned by the Coast Guard that their lighthouse keepers were native Puerto Ricans who spoke limited English, so I agreed to ask his boss if he could go along. When we got back to Ramey I did ask. His boss agreed if we would pick up the cost of his per diem. We consented and added him to our group—which now numbered six.
We then immediately headed back to Cabo Rojo as we were anxious to get underway. When we got there the boat had returned from fishing. When I saw it my heart sank! It was probably 40 feet long all right but about 15 feet of that was the bow pole that sticks out the front of sailing vessels. We had to cross some of the roughest water in the world on that thing? It looked extremely tiny and the gunwales appeared to be only about 18 inches above the deck level. This seemed to me to put in peril any cargo and/or people who were deck loaded. It did have a small open-air cabin area but there was only room for the boat’s Captain and possibly one other. The "crew" consisted of the Captain and one helper. Oh well, it was too late to back-out now. I couldn’t imagine how we were going to get eight people and all our gear on board but we would try and then reevaluate.
The boat did have a waterproof hold below decks and we were just able to fit all the electronic gear into it. Everything else had to be deck loaded. Surprisingly we got it all aboard. However, the resulting configuration allowed almost no room for the people to do anything but sit or stand amongst the gear. If you wanted to sprawl-out or lie down, you had to do it atop the gasoline drums or the water barrels. Nevertheless we were loaded so let’s set sail! "Oh no, Senor", says the Captain. "We cannot leave until 11:00 PM so that we get to Mona at first light tomorrow." I knew Mona lay about 50 miles to the west so his time was probably right, but why delay ‘til then? What was magic about first light? I couldn’t understand what he was telling me through our interpreter, so I walked back to the Fleet Owners Office. He explained that it was simply because in order to get to the dock servicing the lighthouse you had to cross the reef at a precise point; and to get to that point you had to align two signs nailed to trees on the shoreline. Of course you couldn’t do that in the dark and it was better to spend hours waiting on this end than on the boat in the dark at the Mona end. Makes sense but why didn’t someone tell me before now? The answer was it was because I never asked! I looked at my watch and noticed we had about six hours to kill until we could set sail. Since it was dinner time we headed into the town of Cabo Rojo to find a place to eat. We found a combination bar and restaurant and ordered. About an hour later who should walk in but Ted Williams—the "Splendid Splinter" of Boston Red Sox fame! His interest in fishing was legendary and it seems he had a place just to the east of Cabo Rojo where he came as often as possible to do some sport fishing. We introduced ourselves. He seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing. He bought us a round of drinks and we must have talked for about 30 minutes before he wished us luck and left. That kinda woke us up from our lethargy and helped make the next four hours go by much faster. About 10:30 we headed back to the boat. This time the Captain was ready to go. He started the boat’s primitive two-cycle engine and we ka-chunk….ka-chunk….ka-chunked away from the pier. A few minutes later the crew raised the sail and we were under way at last.
It was a beautiful night. The sky was clear and the stars bright. The air was warm with just enough wind to keep the sail taunt but not enough to create any chop to the sea. I truly had not looked forward to this trip. I am not a fan of open water and though I had never been airsick, I had been seasick several times; a couple times on nearly calm seas when the swells were rhythmic. I just did NOT look forward to the extremely rough seas forecast for our Mona Passage crossing. But maybe tonight we would be lucky and the seas would remain calm. Everyone was engrossed and talking for about the first hour, but as we approached midnight and the lights of Puerto Rico dropped below the horizon, one by one our group tried to find a comfortable position and get some sleep. I hunkered down in a crack between a couple fuel drums and the gunwale and fell asleep. Maybe an hour later I was jarred awake by what seemed to me to be a rather violent slapping sound of water against the boat and the boat plunging up and down on sizeable waves. The crew was in the process of lowering the sail and we again became entirely dependent on the little two-cycle engine for our progress. I looked around and noted everyone else was still asleep. I remember thinking that was good as that way no one would be sick or concerned by the deterioration in conditions. I could not get back to sleep, so for maybe another 20 minutes I watched as the waves got higher and higher. I tried to guess their height by comparing them to the height of the mast, which I guessed to be about 15-20 feet. They weren’t there yet but had to be close. Frankly I was concerned if not scared. But I convinced myself that because our engine was continuing its steady ka-chunking and the boat continued to bob up and over each wave instead of digging into it, we were OK. However, things continued to get worse. I woke up Bill and asked if he thought we should turn around and go back as people were now waking up and beginning to hang onto anything they could find so as to not be thrown around the boat. Bill said the crew surely knew what they were doing and he would leave it up to them. Soon, even in the dark, all we could see was 20-30 feet walls of water coming at us and with each wave the boat would seem to stand on its stern as it entered the wave, penetrate the crest as it rode over the top and then drop violently into each trough. With the penetrating of the crests some water would wash across the deck and the spray would batter us until everyone was soaking wet. In addition to that discomfort, even though I was wearing my long sleeved fatigues and a life jacket, I was getting ever colder as the water penetrated to my skin. As I surveyed the situation I began to imagine just how easy it would be for us to capsize or at least someone get washed overboard if the Captain wasn’t able to hit each wave just right. I wanted no part of that so started staggering aft from my place in the bow determined to ask him to turn around. As I would grab each new handhold so I could continue to move, I asked each member of our party how they were doing; e.g. I asked the Chief of the Ground Station, "Sarge, how are you making it?" His answer was, "I’ve seen worse. I’ll be OK."
The next guy, "If it doesn’t get worse, I’ll make it."
And the next, "Yup, I’m alright."
And so it went until I’d polled all five other members of our party. I had asked our translator to come with me to talk to the Captain and by the time I got to him I had determined I was the most pessimistic guy on board. So rather than telling him to turn around I asked him if he thought we ought to. His answer to me in English was, "Tis nothing, Senor, ‘tis nothing." His words didn’t convince me as much as his actions. He was sitting on his stool in a short sleeved T-shirt with no life vest. He had the boat’s wheel in one hand and was eating sardines, out of a tin he had just heated over a one burner hot plate which was sitting beside him, with the other!! He then began talking to our interpreter in Spanish. He told him we were presently in the worst of the Mona Passage and that we would soon be out of it. I had no feeling of making progress. Although the engine continued to ka-chunk…..ka-chunk…..ka-chunk I felt we were just pitching and rolling up and down on the waves. But what did I know? I relayed his message to all as I stumbled and staggered back to the bow. Sure enough, in about 20 more minutes the seas began to calm and maybe 30 minutes after that they were almost glassy again. I said a little prayer of thanks and swore I’d never again cross that Passage if there were ANY other options.
We still had a way to go so I got together with our translator, whose name was Pablo, and asked him how he knew there was good shelling around Mona. We had a great conversation and I learned a lot from him. His rank was Airman First Class. I had thought he was a bit too old for that rank but, of course, I hadn’t said anything. He explained to me that the Air Force had a program that allowed Puerto Rican citizens to join the USAF and spend their entire tours on that island unless they volunteered to go elsewhere or there is a National emergency that would require them to be moved. He was in that program and was happy with it. The downside was that it had a manning document with very strict grade limits. Time in grade and good performance meant almost nothing. You just got in line and had to wait for a vacancy at the next higher grade before you could get promoted. Also, there was a lot of jumping around between career fields in order to get into one that might soon have a vacancy. One of his early jobs had been as a theodolite observer for the SAC Wing. It was during the days of the B-36s. Those aircraft would fly non-stop from Ellsworth AFB, SD to the small, barren island of Isla Monito (Little Mona) which lies about four miles northwest of Mona. There they would drop live bombs and then return to their home base. Pablo’s job was to man one of two theodolite stations on Mona and observe the bomb impacts. Then combined with similar observations from the other site, through triangulation they could score the drops. He would dive for shells whenever he had off time and had done well at that. The shelling significantly augmented his income. I asked him how he used to get back and forth between Ramey and Mona and he told me, by small aircraft. He said there was a small dirt strip, at that time, just southwest of the Lighthouse on the beach. My ears perked up at that and I asked him to take me there as soon as we got squared away after landing at Mona.
From what he and others had told me and from what I was able to read about Mona prior to the recon, I knew this. It is a roughly circular island about five miles in diameter and lies about midway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. At about 50 miles from Puerto Rico, it is slightly closer to the Dom Rep but belongs to and is administered by Puerto Rico. It is a largely barren island with no permanent inhabitants. There is a lighthouse manned by three members of the U.S. Coast Guard on the east side of the island and a Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources compound manned by two rangers/game wardens on the west side. Their job is to protect two varieties of wildlife that inhabit the island. One is the Mona Iguana. That is a large, strikingly beautiful variety of that lizard and is endemic only to Mona. They can grow to four feet in length and are completely protected. The other animal is the goat. There are so many of them on the island that it has come to be known as Goat Island by many in the area. In the 1840s a couple from Puerto Rico and their eight children sailed to Mona and established residency there in a cave. They took with them several goats which they used as a meat and milk source. The family stayed for only a few years and when they departed they left their goats. They went feral and with no natural enemies they flourished and now overrun the island. They are protected to a degree but the harvesting rules are very liberal. As I recall any Puerto Rican can kill up to three a day and any non-citizen can kill one a week. Since, in the 1960s, people rarely visited the island these hunting rules had failed to check the growth of the goat population.
The island is composed of limestone and its subsurface is honeycombed with caves . In fact it is reputed to have the world’s largest cave system created entirely by action of the seas. As you can imagine, these caves, over time, became rich in the deposit of bird and bat guano. During WWII the Germans occupied the island briefly to harvest the guano as a nitrate source used in the manufacture of gunpowder and other explosives. This was the closest land occupancy the Germans made to the U.S. mainland. There is a primitive system of paths, trails and jeep-type tracks remaining from that occupancy.
As predicted, we approached Mona just after first light. The Captain lined up the two signs on the trees and began his run in over the reef. Just as we were doing so I heard the distinctive Whup..Whup..Whup..sound of helicopter rotor blades. Glancing over my right shoulder I saw a Coast Guard helicopter approaching low over the water from the direction of Puerto Rico. We were almost at the lighthouse dock when they touched down by the lighthouse which was located about 180 feet above us at the top of a cliff. Those SOBs, thought I, they turned us down when we requested chopper support and now here they are. And I wondered if their visit had anything to do with us.
We tied-up to the dock and began unloading our equipment. A short time later we saw the helicopter lift off and head back in the direction of Puerto Rico. Shortly after, one of the light keepers came driving down the jeep trail from the lighthouse to the dock in a strange looking vehicle that looked like the cross between a small pickup and a golf cart with a cargo bed in back. He said they had been expecting us and was sorry he hadn’t come down sooner but that he had been tied up with an emergency. It seems the night before, the ranking member of his three man crew had gotten drunk, become delirious, had gotten his sidearm and began shooting up the lighthouse. The other two had become scared, had turned their large dining table on its side and hid behind it. Shortly later the guy calmed down enough for them to subdue him and tie him up. They radioed their San Juan station for help and were told they would send a helicopter for him at dawn. That is what we witnessed.
We loaded the "truck’s" small bed with some gear and made the first of many runs up and down the cliff road. I went with the first load as I was anxious to find the survey marker that was so important to our mission. Because so few people come to the island I doubted it had ever been disturbed but you never know. In fact, I doubted it had ever been used or even visited since it had been monumented in the 1940s. The lighthouse crew knew nothing of it even though it was supposed to be within a couple hundred yards of their facility. The other worry was that the station description I was given before leaving Turner may no longer describe the area adequately as such things as trees die, boulders are moved, and other landmarks are altered over time. In this case not much had changed. I found it within a half hour. It was not a pleasant half hour, however, as the area was home to a variety of tall and sturdy cactus . They tore some of my clothing and their spines actually penetrated my boots and into my feet on two occasions. But I was very relieved to find the marker undisturbed. To have to have surveyed in a new ground station location would have been a major and expensive effort as there was no other survey control on the island that had been tied to the Geodetic Datum specified in the Navy requirement.
Bill had been in charge of unloading the boat and getting the stuff up the hill. During that effort one piece of electronic gear had inadvertently fallen overboard and into the water. Our translator, Pablo, who was a diver as I had mentioned, was quickly in the water and rescued the key and expensive component. The ground station guys got it dried out and the incident had no impact on the mission. Since the two lighthouse guys and the boat crew had pitched in and were helping, Bill had plenty of bodies. So, I borrowed Pablo and asked him to show me where that dirt airstrip was that he had told me about. Before we headed out for it the lighthouse guys warned us that there were sinkholes on the island that had collapsed into the caves below. Falling into one could mean a drop to the cave floor—often 100-200 feet or more. Some of these openings were very small and could be hidden by vegetation, so we should be careful. There were trails most of the way to the old strip and it was less than a mile, so we got there with no problems. The strip had grown up with short and fine grasses of not more than eight inches in height. We walked the strip and found nothing that would interfere with a landing in my opinion, and I estimated the length to be 1500 feet or more. A cliff about 180 feet in height paralleled it to the north, but it was clear in the other three directions and it was plenty wide to land a small plane. I really did not want to go back to Puerto Rico by boat, so decided I would try to get somebody to come and pick-up the three of us by plane.
We headed back to the lighthouse and found all the gear had made it to the top of the cliff, and the rest of the group were being given a tour of the house with emphasis on the new bullet holes. I took the three ground station guys to the survey mark they were to occupy. We then returned to the lighthouse and joined the others in accepting the light keepers’ offer of the goat stew they had cooking in a big pot on their stove. I learned later that they always had that stew available and ate it 2-3 times a day. Our guys liked it at first but it got old fast. In exchange for the stew, our guys would trade some of the freeze-dried rations they had brought. Between the two everyone ate pretty well while there.
After our meal the boat crew said they wanted to go out fishing until we were ready to leave, and Pablo wanted to start snorkeling in search of shells. As soon as Bill heard the word fishing (being the great fisherman he was) he wanted to go along. I reminded him that the ground station installation was his bag so I wasn’t sure he should leave until it was done. He replied, "If I’ve trained these operators right, they don’t need ME; and I HAVE trained them right!" So I concurred with his goin’ fishin’. I told him I was going to try to arrange an aircraft pickup for 5:30 PM so he should be back and at the airstrip by that time; but he shouldn’t release the boat for their return to Puerto Rico until they saw us get airborne. Once we flew over their boat and waggled our wings they were free to go. Pablo repeated everything in both English and Spanish until he was sure everyone understood the plan. I told Pablo he could go shelling in the vicinity of the airstrip until I got down there to join him. If the ground station guys didn’t need Bill they SURE didn’t need me so I decided to snorkel with him as a good way to spend the afternoon. But first I had to find another way to get back to Puerto Rico. My idea was to see if the AST Commander had gotten the HF (High Frequency) net control station on the air yet at Ramey. If so, I would make phone patches thru him using the lighthouse’s HF radio. If not, I would do the patches thru the Coast Guard Station at San Juan. The net control was up so I asked for a patch to the Duty Officer at Ramey Base Ops. I asked him if there were any chance we could be picked up by their U-3. If not, did he have any ideas of who we might get to do it? He said no, he could not let the U-3 land on an unimproved grass strip. He suggested we call the Ramey Aero Club and see if they could help. I then patched to them. The guy I talked to said he could not allow the Aero Club aircraft to fly off the island, but that he knew a B-52 pilot who had a small private plane parked in the Aero Club area and he might be interested. He asked me to call back in about 20 minutes and he would try to have that pilot available to talk to me. When I called back the pilot was there. He asked me where on the island the strip was and asked me to describe the strip to him. He wanted me to know that he was NOT licensed to carry passengers off the island of Puerto Rico but that if that were OK with us, he would give it a go. If, however, he didn’t like what he saw when he got to Mona he would not attempt a landing but would return to Ramey. I gladly accepted his terms as I would have done almost anything to prevent having to cross that Mona Passage again by boat. For the same reason I did not discuss cost with the pilot. I didn’t want to know as I probably would have agreed to whatever he wanted. I told him we would meet him at 5:30 PM at the strip. By this time the ground station guys were nicely started on chopping down the cactus and clearing the area around the survey mark. They agreed that they didn’t need me so I hurried down to the beach near the strip and joined Pablo. He had brought a two-man life raft with him and already had several gorgeous big shells in it. He had also brought an extra set of snorkeling gear so I had some to use. We left our clothes in his gear bag at the airstrip, wrapped our shoes in some waterproof bags he had brought and put these in the raft in case we wanted to walk and not swim back. We then set off swimming slowly to the west along the shore in water maybe eight or so feet deep. With two of us looking it didn’t take long for us to fill the raft with nice large shells ; mostly Conchs and Spanish Helmets. But we continued to swim for another hour or so looking for bigger and better specimens. Every time we would find one we would put the smaller ones back into the water. By that time I was tired and there was no way I was going to swim back; so I decided to swim into shore and walk back. This was easier said than done because the rocks and beach in this area were literally covered with large, black spiny sea urchins; and you don’t want to step on those! Pablo waded ashore in his flippers and pulling the raft, but every time I would try that I would lose my balance trying to walk on uneven rocks in those big flippers. Finally I just took them off and crawled on all fours; very carefully placing each hand and foot so as to not get impaled on the urchins.
As we were bushwhacking back toward the airstrip, struggling to carry that raft full of shells thru the trees and underbrush we came to an area being used by 10 or so heavily armed and tough looking characters dressed in military fatigues but with no insignia of any kind. They had their hammocks stretched between trees and several fire rings established. Coolers, boxes and other camping gear were all around and it looked like they had been there awhile. At first I assumed they were goat hunters but I saw no signs of any dead animals or meat. They spoke no English so I couldn’t talk with them. Pablo struck up a conversation, however, and they soon offered us a couple warm beers, which we readily accepted. They told Pablo that they were anti-Castro Cubans and came here frequently to run maneuvers in preparation for the time that they and others like them would have a chance to overthrow their dictator. I guess I believed them but there was no sign of a boat or ship so I have no idea how they got there or how they were going to get off the island.
We got back to the strip about an hour early but figured we shouldn’t climb up to the lighthouse and back in case our plane came early. I had assured the pilot we would be there so he would be confident he was landing in the right spot. Therfore we took a sun nap while awaiting the arrival of the plane and also Bill. At just about exactly 5:30 we saw the plane descending from the east. He descended to maybe 50 feet above the ground and made a low pass over the field just to check on conditions, I guessed. He then made a go-around, circled to the left out over the sea, and came in again—this time for a landing. However, just before he touched down his left wing dipped badly and nearly struck the ground. He applied power and went around again. OH S__T! I thought. He’s going to abort and leave us here! Wrong!! He made another attempt and this time got the plane on the ground; much to my joy. When I asked the pilot about his first attempt to land, he said that there was a north cross wind and when the air hits the cliff to the north it descends toward the sea. When it strikes the beach area it eddies causing an updraft at the base of the cliff. He said he compensated for it on the second attempt and was successful. I understood as I had personally experienced the same phenomenon in the Azores several years before. OK, we were ready to go except for two problems. First, the pilot didn’t want to carry the salty life raft and shells in his cargo bay as he feared a chemical reaction between the salt and the aluminum skin of his plane. And second, NO BILL!! It was by now well after the agreed upon 5:30 meeting time and he hadn’t shown up. To solve the first problem I asked the pilot would he take the raft and shells if we could wash them thoroughly in fresh water and then somehow line his cargo bay, so they wouldn’t touch the aircraft’s skin. He said he would; so I asked Pablo to run up to the lighthouse, borrow some fresh water from the ground station guys, borrow a large tarp from either them or the lighthouse guys, and have the light keepers drive him and that stuff as far down the path to the field as they could in their vehicle. In the meantime the pilot and I would carry the salty stuff up toward the path and meet them. The plan worked to the pilot’s satisfaction. We lined his bay with the tarp and loaded Pablo’s raft, shells, and his swim bag with snorkeling gear into the hold. This delay was fortuitous ‘cause as we were loading, up walked Bill. It seems that he and the boat had been fishing off the west end of the Island when it was time to start back; but because the wind, tide or something had changed they were not able to make good progress and were running late. They saw the plane arrive and knew they wouldn’t have time to make it back to the dock to let Bill off, so they took him nearer to the beach and let him wade ashore and walk to the strip. It’s a good thing they did as I was going to leave Bill if he hadn’t arrived and let him return to Puerto Rico on the boat. Anyway, we took off without incident. We then flew over the boat and waggled our wings to let them know they were released to go home. Then we circled and flew over the ground station. We waggled again to say goodbye. The guys there had already cleared their area, had their operations tent up, the fuel drums and water barrels aligned beside the tent and they looked like they were in business except for erecting the HIRAN antenna, which they had together and lying stretched out on the ground. We turned to the east and headed toward Ramey—the recon and my part of the mission were completed, and we still had just over two days until the first flight.
Once on the ground back at Ramey we asked the pilot what we owed him. His answer was, "Nothing. I enjoyed doing it!" Of course I couldn’t accept that as I would have gladly paid him $500 for getting us out of that boat trip back. He finally gave in and said $30 would cover his fuel costs and he would be happy with that. Bill paid him $100 and that seemed to make everyone happy.
As Pablo drove us back to the BOQ, I congratulated Bill on what I considered a recon well done. I suggested that after we cleaned up we go to the Officers Club and celebrate; and I’d even buy him dinner! He readily accepted. Before heading to the club, Bill called the AST Commander and asked if the Mona Station had checked in by radio and where they stood on being ready. He replied that both stations had checked in and both were ready to go. He had also requested the other two aircraft deploy from Turner the next day (20 March 1967) so that they could be in place, maintained as necessary, and be ready for the first flights on the 22nd. All was well so it truly was time to celebrate!
Now Bill had really shown me on this trip that he was a prodigious beer drinker! I had never known anyone who could drink so much over such prolonged periods of time without showing the slightest effects. He told me more than once, however, that his system absolutely could NOT handle any kind of hard liquor. I told him that was ridiculous. An ounce of alcohol was an ounce of alcohol no matter the drink it was in. He insisted that may be the general rule but it was not true with him. When we got to the Club Bill wanted to roll the dice to see who would buy the first round of drinks. I told him I would do that only if he would agree that if I lost I would not only pay but he would have to drink my favorite drink which is a martini. He really did not want to do that, but I goaded him into accepting. Of course when gambling, Bill has trouble losing and that held true on our first roll. I bought the round and Bill drank his martini with minimal protest. On the second roll I lost again. About half way through his second drink his speech became slurred and when he got up to go to the bathroom he staggered noticeably. He came back, finished his drink and nearly passed out on the bar. He was right once again; he couldn’t tolerate hard liquor. I had to physically help him walk back to the BOQ and get him into his bed. That sure ruined our celebration, but at least it saved me the cost of his dinner as he never got around to eating.
The next day the two additional aircraft arrived along with additional AST men and equipment. Inbound from the states they flew a dry run with the ground stations to see how high they would have to fly to get their signals at the maximum northerly distance requested by the Navy. Although our cameras were mounted in gyro-stabilized mounts, camera tip and tilt is the greatest uncompensated error in the SCP data reduction process. Thus, the aircraft should be flown as low as possible in order to minimize these errors. It was found that the aircraft would have to fly at 31,000 feet at the furthest northerly point, but they could progressively descend to 9,000 feet and still get good signals at the southern most point requested on the ships course.
The rendezvous with the ship was as scheduled on 22 March. It was tracked continually for 16.13 hours and this covered 165.360 miles of southbound ship’s travel across the Puerto Rican Trench. The only problem encountered was that in the night photography it was a bit difficult to locate the precise spot on the ship that was being positioned, which was the center of a string of lights located on a boom near amidships. The 1370th flew an electrical engineer down to Puerto Rico after this first run, and he mounted an aircraft camera activated strobe light on the boom. That eliminated the problem for the second run. Since my work was done I returned to Turner on the aircraft that brought the engineer down.
The second run was a northbound tracking starting on 27 March. This time the ship was tracked for 16.62 hours as it covered 163.468 miles across the Trench.
The final Report of Results was not published until 26 June 1967 because the data reduction and analysis for SCP missions of this magnitude were extremely meticulous, labor intensive, and time consuming. Also, during this period the 1370th Photomapping Wing was in the process of being inactivated at Turner AF, GA and their assets reactivated as the Aerospace Cartographic and Geodetic Service at Forbes AFB, KS. The Navy was elated with the results. The 1370th had completed what would have been a very challenging mission under the best of conditions in a flawless manner. That it was done with so little advanced notice was nearly miraculous. A new and improved readiness condition for our nuclear deterrent FBM fleet was assured thanks in no small part to this exceedingly high priority mission.
After completion of the recon, Bill stayed on as the GSO (Ground Station Officer) for the AST. As such he was in charge of recovering the Ground Stations after the Mission and getting their resources back to the States. In that capacity he was the last member of the AST to leave the mission area. In review then, Bill was the one that initially sparked the impetus to get on with this mission during that Staff Meeting on 13 March 1967, he was the first one into the mission area on 14 March, and he was the last one out on 30 March. He was involved in all phases of the Mission and was probably the single individual most responsible for its success.
The USS Compass Island Project was of particular interest because it was of short duration, was fast moving, involved a unique application of HIRAN Controlled Photography using the SCP technique, had such a short fuse, and was of such high National importance. Bill’s stellar performance on it, however, was not unique. Both before and after that Project, Bill worked on many more of longer duration and greater complexity. His performance was consistently outstanding.
It would be difficult in a finite number of words to describe just what attributes Bill possessed that made him so successful and an icon in the Photomapping community. So I tried to think of some well known aphorisms that might convey these attributes and his modus operandi. Among them are: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained", "A stitch in time saves nine", "Train ‘em and turn ‘em lose", "Don’t sweat the small stuff", "You can attract more with honey than with vinegar", "Speak softly but carry a big stick", "All great journeys begin with a first step", and "Where there’s a will, there’s a way". I guess the one that would say it all best, however, is: "That which is possible we can do NOW! The IMPOSSIBLE will take just a little longer."
As I mentioned in the intro to this article, I owe Bill a huge debt for showing me on this single mission just what it means to be a Photomapper. It was a business that required innovative thinking, initiative, ingenuity, perseverance, and pride in the mission. Bill had all that. He was like a chameleon. You could put him in any environment, under any conditions, and he would immediately blend into it. He would not only survive, but would soon emerge as a leader. During his 12 years in the business while on active duty, Bill became the consummate Photomapper. And he remained that until the end. At 91 years of age he wrote a Tribute to his Ground Station Guys, and then spent the last year of his life trying to sell his Tribute to a mainstream publication so he could donate the proceeds to the Air Force Photomapping Association! Bill died on 12 October 2007. He is missed.